Review Summary: Black magic.
Still freshly hungover from Valtari
, the bleary-eyed fans of Icelandic post-rock have suddenly been jolted back into a functional state. What's that earsplitting noise? That crunching racket? It can only be one thing; Sigur Rós have shapeshifted. Of course they have; they do it every album, but Kveikur
is a whole different beast. In the 19 years Sigur Rós have existed as an entity, we've been treated to wistful, solemn claustrophobia, dizzying orchestral sweeps and everything in between. There's a piece for every mood; every moment, significant or not, but even the cover image of Kveikur
says everything before the needle hits the record. A distressed, masked person, reminiscent of Edvard Munch's work. This wasn't going to be more of the same.
In part, Kveikur
is metallic, sludgy and industrial. On the title track, Jonsi's voice has uncharacteristic amounts of distortion on it. There's nerve-jangling percussion and an outro that would terrify an abattoir worker, while the strikingly violent Brennisteinn
has thick, crunching bass and shifting time signatures. The band slipped in a number of hints that their music would be darker and 'more aggressive', which, when taking into account these two tracks, is an understatement. However, the most interesting aspect of the album is that the hype built up around this change of heart has proven erroneous. Kveikur
is dark, sure, but it is perhaps a confusion of concepts that has lead us to this conclusion. The album is more propulsive than downright aggressive, owing to a larger focus on the percussive side of the band; their live shows now often include two drummers. The album almost acts as a symbolic release from years of tense emotion and restraint, and finally utilises the thunderous, straightforward pulse Sigur Rós had up their sleeve. What is perhaps even more remarkable about Kveikur
is that it is, at times, pure fun. With the gothic, chiaroscuro promotional campaign surrounding the album, it was a dead-cert to be the band's bleakest album, perhaps even a slight lilt into self-indulgence. A band starts down a troubled road once they start to take themselves too seriously, which is why it is such a relief that Kveikur
is such an overwhelmingly earnest explosion of emotion. It's joyous, mournful, raging and hopeful, all wrapped into one succinct, concise album of only 48 minutes, the perfect antidote to the beautiful-yet-mind-numbing 'grace' of Valtari
Highlights such as the harmonious plod of Rafstraumur
and the beautiful, optimistic crash of Stormur
are a showcase of this range of emotions, and a more perfect balance of this range you are unlikely to find in another contemporary musical release. It's highest highs are more charming and carefree than anything on Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
, and its darkest moments are harsher and more hopeless than Von
or Ágætis Byrjun
. It has an almost danceable quality that none would have guessed the trio possessed, which would certainly add to the the album's widespread appeal if it weren't for Sigur Rós being seemingly eager to put off newcomers by drenching every inch of promotion in black paint. It's not so much that the album is 'poppy', but there is a high chance it won't appeal to all corners of the fanbase. The dense string sections and protracted drones are all gone. It's not so much about building atmosphere as writing symphonies using dynamite and cinder blocks. It is about as full-circle as a musical adventure can come, culminating in an album that is, in effect, all their past releases rolled into one. It was the only step Sigur Rós could take, and once the dust settles, it will be an anxious few years wondering where they can go from a career-defining moment such as this.
To use an analogy; if Takk…
was the fun loving, sanguine girlfriend, ( )
was the mysterious, brooding one and Valtari
was the depressed one who wrote captions over photos of sunsets, Kveikur
is the one you want wrapped round your wedding ring finger as soon as possible, because you know that for all its mercurial ingenuity and moments of madness, it's the one that will stay with you through thick and thin. At once comforting, confusing, sympathetic and challenging, it is a true masterpiece of an album. Constructed with intense scrutiny to squeeze every last inch of meaning out of every last note, there are few albums recently, or perhaps ever, that resonate so closely with the mind and body, that cover so much ground with so much ease and so little time. Whatever you do with your life, do not let it pass you by without hearing this album.